Conscious Consumption: Part 1

by Emmeline Ong

Nothing is random in this urban world we live in; almost everything is there through design of one form or another. Yet we often overlook this in our everyday lives. From the furniture that surrounds us to the clothes we put on and the experiences we go through – almost everything exists by design.

We perform the act of consumption day after day, removed from the design and production processes. Efficiency renders these stages invisible and we enjoy the utility and beauty of the end products with rarely an extra thought beyond the labels. These processes have more impact that we can imagine, as they shape the way we perceive what we use and how we use them.

As sustainability, inclusiveness and circularity grow in prominence, we look into what constitutes “conscious consumption” and why we should care. In this 3-part series, we pick the brains (and hearts) behind six local design projects under this year’s Good Design Research initiative by the DesignSingapore Council.

Good design begins with the consideration of materials used and where they come from. It is also built on the foundation of accessibility and usability with every cut and stitch. This is the first chapter of the “Conscious Consumption” series on Singapore design.

Part 1: About Access, Without Excess

We get dressed every day as part of a daily routine. We might not put much thought into how we put something on but it doesn’t come as easily for everyone.

“A simple button-down shirt becomes an insurmountable challenge once we lose the dexterity of our thumbs or hands,” shares Claudia Poh, a Singaporean designer who wants to change the face of adaptive clothing. “To overcome this, we fashioned a wrap shirt that can be worn with a single hand via a magnetic buckle.”

This is just one of the many ingenious ideas Claudia has. She founded Werable, a design studio that innovates easy-to-wear styles for adaptive clothing that she describes as thoughtfully designed for life. “We believe in having options,” says Claudia, who believes that reduced mobility shouldn’t stop us from wearing what we love.

Trained at the Parsons School of Design in New York, she returned to Singapore in 2019, hoping to create something useful.

I wasn’t satisfied with starting an eponymous label in my name. Names have power and it’s an opportunity to tell a story much more meaningful than my own.

Claudia Poh, Founder of Werable

Werable, as its name suggests, unites the brand’s two central ideas – wearable and ‘we are able’. Their designs emphasise wearability, providing wearers with a sense of agency. Werable’s ‘Easy-To-Wear’ is an extension of existing clothing typologies, empowering these individuals to dress themselves, and have the option to dress in style without emphasising where they are challenged. 

“During my time at Parsons, my thesis professor, Brendan McCarthy, taught us to question why we create the things we do. He asked us to consider what’s at stake.” This pushed Claudia to explore the possibilities and design a hands-free dressing experience for a friend who was diagnosed with ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis a rare neurological disease that primarily affects the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscle movement such as walking and talking.

This was the beginning of what would be a meaningful journey for Claudia as she started Werable. When speaking to healthcare professionals in Singapore, she realised that there are widely experienced dressing challenges that are still unaddressed here, “maybe buttons become hard to fasten or we can’t reach for that zipper on our backs like we used to.”

Her work began at the Stroke Support Station which supports post-stroke rehabilitation needs. She describes it as a co-creation process that included the patients, their family members, caregivers, social workers and occupational therapists. Given the restrictions due to COVID-19, interviews had to be conducted remotely via Zoom and prototypes delivered to participants to try at home. But the efforts paid off with beautiful results.

“One of our participants, Liansi, asked me to redesign an arm sling to look like a shawl.” Claudia took up the challenge and used the opportunity to address additional issues surrounding comfort and sustainability. “Existing arm slings use velcro which causes itching at the nape of the neck, they lack durability and in just a few washes the fabric piles. We designed a velcro-free lantern sleeve with built-in hidden straps. When hooked to the loops on the cuff, the sleeves transform into a functional arm sling. The voluminous appearance of the lantern sleeve drapes over her bent arm, inspiring a greater sense of confidence as she goes about her day.”

They had designed an arm sling that served more than its basic purpose; this was a design that could be worn as a modular sleeve, allowing it to be paired with different types of sleeveless tops. It ensured that this piece of functional clothing, designed to meet Liansi’s needs at that specific period, could continue to be part of her wardrobe even after she recovers.

“It’s our first step toward serving as an agency that corrects the challenges that come with longevity. Longevity and sustainability are problems that are here to stay regardless of geographical locations or socioeconomic status.” Claudia wants Werable to be more than just an apparel brand, and address iterative systemic problems.

At another local apparel brand, NOST, founder Felicia Toh is also looking at issues of sustainability and longevity of another nature – heritage.

“Crafts are the time capsules of our culture and the language of artistry,” Felicia began NOST with this belief. Her encounters with artisan families skilled in textile-making over generations in India and Indonesia, inspired her to start partnerships with some of them to honour and continue the legacy of their craft. “If they die out, we would have lost a precious part of Asia’s shared history.”

Felicia’s architectural training adds a modern perspective to her approach when dealing with heritage crafts such as handloom weaving, batik printing and woodblock printing. “Sometimes when people think of ‘handicrafts’, a certain rustic souvenir pops into mind. How can we break free from these stereotypes of what a handmade item looks and feels like? A lot of it lies in curation.”

There are no shortcuts. A deep dive into the traditional processes of weaving and batik printing is necessary to understand the processes and their technical limitations. Then comes the design of NOST’s original motifs inspired by architectural textures in surrounding cities. These fresh motifs are then hand-carved and welded into blocks, “I hope that our designs communicate this freshness — as timeless, wearable pieces that are heritage-crafted but fit within any modern wardrobe. Making it relevant to today’s consumers is one way of enabling the longevity of these precious artisanal skills.”

Begun with sustainability and heritage preservation in mind, the loungewear brand is known for their hand-printed apparel made with 100% GOTS certified cotton. But Felicia believes that fashion design and production begins way before the apparel moodboard; it starts from the kind of fibre that goes into yarns and is in turn, woven into fabric. And that is what she and the NOST team did for the PALFCRAFT project under DesignSingapore Council’s Good Design Research initiative – weaving the raw fabric itself using pineapple leaf fibre (PALF) yarns and TENCEL.

“While thinking of holistic ways to value-add to the artisan families we work with, one key question was, ‘how could we help to future-proof heritage crafts?’ Supplying the artisans with a steady supply of sustainable materials would enable them to produce sustainable fabrics, propelling them into a buoyant global growth market.” Felicia shared. In a truly circular fashion, they looked at available agricultural by-products in the region.

Pineapple leaves are in abundance in Southeast Asia where NOST and their artisan partners are based. Some of the top global pineapple producers are found in Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand; for every kg of pineapple fruit, at least 2 kilograms of pineapple leaves are generated, most of which are either burned or end up in landfills. By collecting and processing these into pineapple leaf yarns, what would have gone to waste becomes usable fabric.

To ensure these pineapple leaf fibres that are processed into yarns are readily available to their artisans, NOST is partnering Nextevo, a Singaporean company that collects by-products from local farmers with the aim to transform and repurpose agricultural waste at scale, into useful materials or products. Eventually, NOST hopes to create a line of sustainable apparel and home goods made using PALF yarns and other sustainable, natural yarns made with fibres from abaca, jute, sisal, water hyacinth, then woven and printed by their artisans.

“As people become increasingly sustainable-minded in Singapore and the region, I hope the market for pineapple pajamas and home textiles will grow and help preserve the livelihoods and artistry of Asia’s design and craft communities,” says a hopeful Felicia.

Good design can spark wonder and well-being. Sometimes design is seen as an aesthetic foray, but it’s much more than that. Design can solve real life problems, making life better and more nourishing.

Felicia Toh, Co-founder of NOST

Images courtesy of respective brands, artwork by Curatedition. All rights reserved.

Related Links:

Conscious Consumption: Part 2

Conscious Consumption: Part 3

Face Masks: Where to Get Your New Wardrobe Staple in Singapore

What’s Uniquely Sparkling on Our Shores

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